Science — The Hidden Gem at the Heart of the EPA and Why You Should Support It

May 8, 2018 | 8:53 am
Photo: skynesher/iStockphoto
Robert Kavlock
Former Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA Office of Research and Development and an EPA Science Advisor

The role of science in EPA decision-making might, in the vocabulary of former President George W. Bush, be the most “misunderestimated” part of the EPA’s job. Although their work is the foundation of virtually every EPA decision—from regulatory protections to reviews of new chemicals to Superfund cleanups—agency scientists have labored for years under the radar. Career and political professionals appreciate and routinely rely on their work, but their invaluable contributions remain largely invisible.

Not any longer. Scott Pruitt’s obvious distaste for science has pushed EPA science into the headlines. We’ve gone from a norm in which a top-ranking EPA science policy figure was on virtual speed dial to the administrator to a Pruitt-era multi-faceted attack on the scientists themselves. Initially Pruitt ignored them, then tried to defund them, and is now attempting to hobble their work.

An attempt to slash the EPA’s Science and Technology Account

Let’s start with the 2019 Trump/Pruitt proposed budget, which is virtually identical to their 2018 proposal that was fortunately soundly rejected by the Congress. The 2019 budget would cut the EPA’s Science and Technology budget by 49%. The specifics—all programs funded by the S&T Account that President Trump proposes cutting—illustrate the insult to the health and safety of the American public.

  • A 67% cut to the “Air and Energy” account that looks at how air pollution damages our health and well-being. This is essential information as the EPA decides which pollutants must be reduced and at what levels, and prepares the country to respond to climate change. The Trump budget would ax these programs despite analysis showing that since 1990 the American public has reaped clean air benefits to the tune of $2 trillion compared to estimated costs of $65 billion. Need one good example? This program helps advance the development and use of lower-cost, portable, and user-friendly monitoring devices individuals can use in their own communities to find out what they and their families are breathing. Why cripple one of the EPA’s biggest public health success stories when we actually need to be investing more in our clean air?
  • A 37% cut in “Safe and Sustainable Water Resources” to protect the lakes, streams, and rivers across our country from which we get drinking water and where we fish, swim, and boat. This research is an essential part of making sure water bodies are healthy, that valuable water isn’t overwhelmed by pollution from factories and other industrial processes. You only have to look at the role of EPA scientists in monitoring and evaluating algae blooms in Toledo, Ohio that endangered drinking water for millions of people, or Flint, Michigan’s problems with lead in drinking water to understand why this account should be funded at even greater levels than it is today.
  • A 61% cut in “Research on Sustainable Communities.” Cities and states across the country rely on the research and planning tools developed in this program as they go about their jobs assuring good environmental and health outcomes. This research also develops and demonstrates new and improved techniques for environmental protection. For example, program researchers found a way to estimate how drinking water, food, dust, soil and air contribute to blood lead levels in infants and young children.
  • A 34% cut in “Research on Chemical Safety and Sustainability” to evaluate how thousands of chemicals, existing and under development, might affect people’s health and the environment. This research allows the EPA to develop the scientific knowledge, tools and models to conduct integrated, timely, and efficient chemical evaluations. Getting a bit wonky here—because I was personally involved in this effort and watched it grow from a concept to being the international leader in innovating approaches to chemical hazard: this account supports the EPA’s work in computational toxicology, which in turn helps the EPA take on the herculean task assigned it by the 2016 Lautenberg amendments to the bipartisan Toxic Substances Control Act to analyze possibly thousands of chemicals for potential risk. The tool integrates knowledge from biology, biotechnology, chemistry, and computer science to identify important biological processes that may be disrupted by the chemicals and thereby sets priorities for their review based on potential human health risks. Risking that program should be a non-starter.
  • Completely eliminating Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Grants that support outside researchers for cutting edge work in all of the areas above.

Political takeover of science

Scott Pruitt’s most recent attack on science at the EPA is a back-door attempt to institutionalize a very damaging idea that has failed to be enacted by Congress over multiple years. Pruitt is trying to railroad through a regulation that would throw out scientific studies used in setting EPA rules and other requirements unless the raw data on which the studies are based are made publicly available.

Why is this a terrible idea and threatening to public health? For five decades, EPA’s regulatory protections have relied on many thousands of health-related studies of pollutants, including epidemiological, human, and animal studies. Many examine the relationship between concentrations of various pollutants and their impacts on people’s health.

The raw data on which these studies are based often includes names, dates of birth and death, health, lifestyle information, and subjects’ locations—data that is personally damaging if released and has almost nothing to do with public understanding or the validity of the study’s results. Ethical and legal considerations rightly keep scientists from releasing such personal data. Restricting the use of the data cuts two ways, as often it is submitted by industry in support of its activities as well by groups that are arguing for more stringent regulatory controls. There are certainly ways to confirm independently the validity of the studies as has been done with two keystone air quality studies by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), an organization jointly funded by EPA and the industry.

The Pruitt proposal creates other problems as well: so much time has passed since the leading studies of the impacts of air pollution were compiled in the early 1990s that it would be logistically difficult to retrieve and redact all of the underlying data; this would effectively prevent the use of the most authoritative data available on the impacts of air pollution.

Put in plainer language, Pruitt’s latest attack on science is not good for anyone—industry or the general public.

Attacks on science hit locally

There are many practical, local examples of why cutting science funding is so pernicious and bad for everyone. The EPA, for example, plays a role in the cleanup of Anchorage, Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force Base and for that had the assistance of another federal body, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which examined blood samples taken from residents at the base. ATSDR concluded on the basis of science that lead exposure there did not pose a health hazard. There is no way to make such determinations without science and data, in this case medical data such as blood sample test results, which are critical in drawing valid conclusions as to whether regulated facilities, such as Superfund cleanup sites, cause health effects in nearby communities.

Another notable example is the remote native village of Kivalina in Northwestern Alaska, which is downstream from Red Dog Mine. Unsurprisingly, Kivalina residents are worried about how mining activities might threaten their health by contaminating subsistence foods from their hunting and gathering activities. Personal medical data taken from Kivalina residents was analyzed to determine that Kivalina residents and their food are unlikely to be at risk. The same form of analysis of environmental impacts has been used at other sites such as the long-running cleanup efforts of asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana.

The EPA’s seminal achievements over almost 50 years include removing lead from gasoline; reducing acid rain to improve water quality; reducing second-hand smoke exposure; improving vehicle efficiency and emission controls; and encouraging a shift to rethinking of wastes as materials.

Evaluating and acting on science—the best available science—and having the funding to ensure science expertise is on tap at the EPA is the linchpin to any one of these. Congress and the American public should tell Pruitt to back off from his attacks on EPA science and make sure the agency has the funding it needs to do its job.

Robert Kavlock is the former Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA Office of Research and Development and an EPA Science Advisor (retired). He is currently a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protections.

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